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Monday, 19 March, 2001, 16:09 GMT

On your marks, get set...

Nyta Mann

It would cause uproar if one of the competing runners were in charge of firing the starting pistol for the Olympic 100-metre sprint, but the prime ministerial power to choose the general election date has been with us for centuries.

The right to set the timing of the election is recognised as a useful political weapon for the government of the day. As a result, calls for fixed-term parliaments have surfaced through the years.

On Labour's side, Tony Banks, Austin Mitchell and Jeff Rooker have in the past all introduced private member's bills to impose fixed-term parliaments. The idea even made it to the status of official Labour policy under Neil Kinnock's leadership in the run-up to the 1992 election.

Inevitably, it is an issue more attractive in opposition than in government.

When Tony Blair was asked at prime minister's questions why he did not favour fixed-term parliaments, he replied: "Because I share the view of many of those who have occupied this position before me that it is not the right thing."

Lonely decision

Deciding the best, or least-worst, time to seek re-election was described by one of those predecessors, Harold Wilson, as a "lonely" one.

Technically, of course, it is the Queen that actually dissolves parliament - on the advice of the prime minister - and thus an election is called.

In theory, with a full year to go before Mr Blair's 1997 mandate to govern expires and a fully functioning Labour majority of 179, she could tell him to stop wasting her and the electorate's time and get on with running the country for a while longer. In reality, to do so would precipitate a constitutional crisis.

History would also be on Mr Blair's side. It is a rare parliament that goes the full five-year stretch.

Only three post-war parliaments have done so: the one presided over by the 1959-64 Conservative administration, the Thatcher-Major 1987-92 parliament, and John Major's 1992-1997 term of office.

The example of prime ministers that have hung on for a later date and more propitious circumstances, meanwhile, illustrates the dangers of waiting for better times to come along rather than making an early run for it.

Jim Callaghan put off calling an election in the autumn of 1978, waiting until the spring of 1979 instead - by which time the "winter of discontent" had seen to his chances.

Mr Major, despite his government having lost his majority and run out of political steam, hesitated to go to the country before the five-year limit, and went down in spectacular defeat in 1997.

Fixed terms for new bodies

That the prime minister's right to set the election date is seen by some constitutionalists as a surviving oddity of ancient times is reflected in the fixed terms that the Scottish Parliament, Welsh and Greater London Assemblies must live by.

It would undoubtedly be difficult to justify politically any new legislative body in which the ruling party enjoyed the same right to dictate when it next sought the people's mandate.

Those in favour of fixed terms for Westminster insist it would be fairer on the opposition and the electorate, removing an unfair advantage from the incumbent political party.

It would bring the UK into line with much of the rest of Europe and would give business a more stable basis on which to plan investment. Voters, when asked, also favour a fixed term.

Those in favour of keeping the current system say that to set down a rigid term of office would make weak and unstable government more likely, possibly leading to forced coalitions.

And, as in the US, knowing the precise date of the poll years ahead would only encourage even longer election campaigns.

In a time of increasing public indifference, and even irritation, with politics and politicians, the electorate might consider that last point a deciding factor in whether it would, after all, prefer the right to set the election date to remain with the occupant of Number Ten.


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